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Interview with Stewart Partridge on Sepiax inks for Australia and New Zealand.

Stewart Partridge is a well known personality in the world of inkjet inks, he made himself an excellent reputation here in Australia and New Zealand and elsewhere in the world for his many presentations he conducted under the banner of his digital consultancy, Web Consulting.

Web Consulting was an international consultancy that specialised in the inkjet and graphics industries.

SPartridgeToday he runs Qudos Digital Asia Ltd out of Shanghai, a company representing several of the world’s leading brands of inkjet ink. The company acts as Sales Management for Chimigraf, the Spanish ink manufacturer of UV curable, solvent and industrial inkjet inks; Sepiax from Austria and their “aquares” water based resin chemistry and then Mexar out of the UK for their water based textile inks.

Stewart points out that whilst his group represents these companies in the AP region, it would be more accurate to say that he is actually employed by these companies on a contractual basis to develop their business via distributers and OEM’s in Asia-Pacific region.  “All of the business dealings for distributors are direct with the parent company, we just provide the local commercial management and technical support.”

We wanted to talk to Stewart about Sepiax from Austria, and the progress that this pioneering water based ink company had made to date.

For the uninitiated, Sepiax “aquares” ink is one of the two water based inks that has achieved success in the signage industry, with HP’s Latex ink being the other.

Stewart points out that the success of Sepiax inks is currently limited to those printers that are using Epson DX4 and DX5 print heads. This covers several of the Roland, Mimaki and Mutoh machines, plus certain modified wide format Epson printers, and novel flatbeds developed out of Korea, China, Japan and the like.

As a prelude to our interview he mentioned that he had spent considerable time and effort talking to or researching   a number of potential distributors about for Sepiax Inks in Australia and New Zealand.   This has led to the appointment this week of Anitech as the distributor for Australia, and the earlier selection of Blueprint Imaging as distributor for New Zealand.   Anitech will launch the Sepiax ink at the forthcoming VIIE Show in Sydney.

We then asked Stewart to answer some questions on Sepiax Inks.

WFOL: What sort of success had the company achieved to date in the rest of the world. We know that they have just appointed an agent in the US, so it was presumably a bit premature to talk of any success over there. However Europe, being Sepiax’s home turf, one would assume you have had more success there?

SP – Let me first explain a bit about the background of Sepiax. The original ink was developed in an independent laboratory in Liechtenstein in approximately 2003. In 2005 that laboratory and research was majority acquired by the key investor Gernot Langes, the former President of Swarovski Group. He has invested in a collection of companies under the Gernot Langes Swarovski Group, all of which are focused upon “green” and environmentally-sustainable technologies. So it’s a cash rich investment group that has so far funded the research into Sepiax, and they are committed to turning the Company into an innovative and established name in the digital printing industry.

From 2005 until 2008 the ink was still under development, and a first generation ink was   launched to the market in 2008. Some customers were able to use that ink whilst others found its performance was too critical, so they worked on making an upgraded product which hit the market in only July last year.   That product is the current “aquares” ink.

The “aquares” product has been well received by many companies using roll to roll machines with Epson printheads (Roland DG, Mimaki, Mutoh, etc) that wish to print onto  a wide variety of media, and also by companies that are wanting a high quality output and those that want a solvent-free working environment.

However, the current Sepiax ink technology – or more correctly to say, using the “aquares” ink with the current drying technology built into those standard OEM platforms – is not so economic in environments where high productivity on thick vinyl, banner vinyl or SAV is required.

Water based inks rely on temperature for the drying and curing, and you can’t run these inks at high speed on current platforms and expect to have dry and cured inks on the finished output.

If you take a media like SAV, it is a bit much to ask the pre-heaters in the printer to heat through the various layers of the media to the media surface – this takes a bit of time and is impossible when using   the higher speed settings of the machine.

HP have overcome this by using some very high temperatures but in some cases you have instances of media distorting, and for many applications the Latex inks still require precoated media. So, for instance, if you are doing a panelled poster and you want to butt register the images against each other, there have been cases of people having problems in doing this.

Sepiax ink needs only mid- temperature requirements of up to 60OC, and it is not necessary to reach the 70-90 degrees or more that sometimes HP have to go to with no pre coated media.

With Sepiax inks, you can use pre coated media but it is not necessary and tends to be  a waste of money. Sepiax is also trying to keep with a maximum cure temperature around 55 degrees on the hardest to stick to, non absorbent substrates.   This means that for some media to reach that temperature on faster printing settings, you might need the media under heat to be able to reach 60OC. For an absorbent substrate, we can operate around 35-50 degrees dependant on the media type.

WFOL: So how big is this market for Sepiax at the moment

Well with the current limitation that we are only able to use printers based upon the Epson DX4 and DX5 printheads, this gives us access to  Roland, Mimaki and Mutoh machines.  Among those printers, it is the end user interested in printing onto new or novel media, uncoated and low-cost media, with a green profile or a non-smelling ink, that selects the customer type.  We do not yet have a solution for high-speed production onto banner vinyl and SAV, and achieving this is dependant upon future developments in printer design and heater modules.  We can access part of the signage market but as a proportion of the overall digital printing market it’s not the major proportion.

We currently have no Sepiax product for  the flatbeds and the big grand format machines from companies like HP Scitex, Durst,  Agfa (inc Gandi), etc.

Sepiax is however working on a higher-viscosity variant of the “aquares” ink that will work on other print heads that are tolerant to water based inks, for example, the Konica, Seiko (WB) and Spectra Nova, Kyocera and Panasonic print heads. However, Xaar heads cannot currently accommodate water based inks.

It’s not possible to say when these new formulae will become available. What I can say is that the technology has to be remodelled   in order for us to achieve this. It’s not simply a case of making the existing ink thicker or just changing viscosity, you have to change a lot of parameters of the ink to make it work under the totally different droplet size and print conditions.

However we should know a lot more in a few months as we will have some trial inks going through those print heads and we should know then just how big the problems are to take this next step.

Today, we are doing well with the Epson print head machines, the business is growing as fast as the existing infrastructure can produce the ink. The company only has 25 employees at present, so there are limits on capacity for production, training of distributors and even end users.   Having a strong investor, however, means that we can ramp-up the business to the next productivity level at relatively short notice.

The company is growing at a steady pace and there are many other markets for us to tap into, for instance packaging, industrial labelling, IMD, industrial graphics.  In many of these applications, water based inks are far more preferable to solvent based inks.

Another area where we are getting a lot of interest is from companies that design and manufacture small flatbed machines based upon Epson print head technology. A lot of these machines can be adapted to take this ink, and then users can print on uncoated glass, uncoated stainless steel and uncoated aluminium, plus a whole variety of other substrates.   We have found recently, that by post-fixing the inks for 10 mins at 200OC, we can get exceptional adhesion and toughness on glass, in fact better adhesion than UV-curable inks.

WFOL: What about textiles?

Yes, we can print onto uncoated polyester and Tyvek and a wide range of other uncoated fabrics. However what you don’t get out of this ink is wash resistance. So it is unsuitable for garment printing, home furnishings or any other application where the end product would be washed in hot water and strong detergents. You can cold water wash the end product with minimal detergents but not with hot water.   If customers want washability, they need a specially-formulated textile ink like the Mexar ink.

But Sepiax ink is suitable for internal fabric banners, etc.   Actually, tests in Europe have shown that when the ink is printed onto flameproof substrates like “Trevira”, the flameproof properties are maintained, and this is proving a good selling point for indoor retail banners.

WFOL: Do you have anybody using the ink in Australia or New Zealand at this stage?

SP: Yes, there are users in New Zealand, but we are just about to launch through Anitech in Australia.   However, I should explain that this is not a “plug and play” ink.   The conversion of the printer from solvent ink to water-based is critical, and the ink prints and behaves in a different way to solvent inks. There is a learning process. Rather than thinking of Sepiax “aquares” as a replacement ink for solvent printers, it is better to think of it as the start of a new ink technology family – as different from solvent, as solvent is from UV-curable. And in the same way, the fuller benefits of this technology and faster production speeds will only be realised when one or more serious OEM’s get involved in developing a printer specifically for this ink.

Australia and New Zealand are very important markets in Asia for us. They are high quality markets, which is exactly where we want to be with these inks. In many cases users are quite environmentally sensitive and want to do some quite innovative things with the expanded media range that we can offer. I think the more creative people in the industry are going to find this very interesting.

WFOL: Are you supplying profiles with the inks?

SP: I am afraid we are not at the moment. The intention is to do that but at this moment in time we are not, in Austria, set up enough with enough technicians, RIP technologies and time on the printing machines to be able to generate those. The plan is certainly to start to do that in the future.

We hope to work with our distributors and help them to do this and generate some information exchange. It will be a few months before we can devote enough resources.

WFOL: Regarding colour gamuts available from your inks vs the OEM inks.

Our colour gamut is very good. Let me say a few things here. It is not an exact colour match of the OEM inks. If you get the linearization/ink limitation, grey balance and profiling right you can have a very wide colour gamut out of the ink. Let me give you an example of some of the characteristics you see.

With a normal eco solvent ink, you typically have to optimise the machine to print at 90 or 95% ink limitation to get the right sort of saturated colours. With the Sepiax ink, because it has a much higher pigmentation level – and that’s quite deliberate – you will find on a SAV for instance, you may set the ink limitation to 70% instead of 95%   But if you are printing on something like uncoated Yupo Polypropylene you may be setting it at  25 or 30% ink limitation to get the same colour density as you would with a normal eco solvent ink. With a coated Yupo, you may be using up to 95% to get that same density.

WFOL: So this means that it becomes far more economical to use the Sepiax inks.

SP: The pricing of Sepiax inks is very similar to the OEM inks, but they are cheaper in the actual production environment. In addition, because you don’t need the expensive coated media, the overall savings are extensive.

Invariably it is quite a shock for many printers to realise that the ink consumption is so low whilst actually achieving, in many cases, a higher image density result.

WFOL: Are you selling the inks in cartridges or only as bulk ink?

SP: Both, but our longer term goal is to sell primarily in chipped cartridges. We are not looking to knock down pricing in the market, our goal is to make printing far more economical via other routes such as reducing media costs, broadening the range of media and of course reducing ink consumption.

WFOL: What is your opinion on the OEMs developing their own water based inks, surely they are not standing by and letting Latex and Sepiax take over the market?

SP: Firstly you have to understand that most of the OEMs do not do their own ink development, their inks are developed by specialist ink companies who are then under contract to supply the OEMs.

It is fair to say that the ink manufacturing companies have a strong interest in this type of technology. There has been some experimentation by some of the major players but with little success thus far.

For example, you must know that one of the major manufacturers has put a lot of effort into creating a bio ink, which as you may also know has not been particularly successful because printers report that it is not as stable and reliable in the printhead as normal or eco solvent inks.  

But perhaps worse is that the fundamental concept behind bio-inks is a myth. Firstly, it takes a considerable amount of energy, after fermentation of the biomass, to remove water and concentrate the ethanol solvent. This means that bio fuels and bio solvents are not even close to carbon-neutral. However, the other problem with bio-inks is that when the solvent evaporates, we are not putting CO2 (carbon dioxide) back into the atmosphere.   We are emitting ethanol solvent vapour.   And ethanol as a vapour is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2.   Ironically, so called bio-inks are not particularly environmentally friendly.   It’s just another example in my book of “greenwashing”, rather than solving the real problem.

But getting back to your question, I do think that a lot of research by these ink manufacturing companies is taking place. I think you have to understand the difficulties though.

It’s taken Sepiax seven years to get from a starting point to where they are now.

HP have wanted to do something like this for a long time and have only now come to market with a product that has to superheat the media and still needs some pre coated media.

The point is that for any new entrant starting development now or even a couple of years ago, it is going to take them a long time before any viable product reaches the market.

Due to various patents that have been granted to Sepiax and HP, any new entrants cannot reverse engineer these inks, so they will have to come up with new technology.

The problem for us all is that water is far more difficult to evaporate than solvents. It takes a lot of heat and energy to get rid of the water.

So I think alongside the ink developments we will see more development in the heating systems which can rapidly raise the temperature of the substrate to where it needs to be without over heating it – and which provide a constant temperature across the heater bar, rather than a 5-8 degree fall-off at the edges, as with most current machines.

It’s important to understand that not all of the development has to come from the ink manufacturers; it doesn’t.  For Sepiax inks to move to the next level of higher production speeds, there is going to have to be more development by the OEMs. We envisage partnering with interested parties.

WFOL: So we are many years away from doing away with solvents and eco solvents and having water based inks as the market leading technology.

SP: I think so. If you look at the time it has taken for UV technology to get where it is now, the technology was introduced about 1998/9, so it has taken over ten years for that technology to become as popular as it has.

With water based inks, it may take less time due to the environmental pressures that are on individuals, companies and countries. So maybe a bit less for water based inks, maybe six or seven years.

I would anticipate that after that period we will see UV taking over certain applications and water based technology taking over other applications with solvent technology gradually disappearing. This will happen – perhaps surprisingly – even in countries like China, as their environmental awareness in the big cities is growing at a rapid rate.

WFOL: Is it fair to say then that if developments have to take place with the machinery, then perhaps also with the media?

SP: Not to the same degree. Sepiax have been very fortunate in that it already works with just about any uncoated media. However let me take an example here with SAV.

In central Europe for instance, SAV is not popular because it is difficult to dispose of. It can’t be incinerated with other waste in a power plant since burnt SAV will generate chlorine gas or phosgene gas which are very toxic, and a minor bi product can be dioxins which are lethal. So basically you have to separate out all of the PVC waste before the rest is incinerated.  This is a costly process.

If you move to other organic materials that are non-PVC, and coat those with a self adhesive layer and produce a laminate, there are today very few inks that will actually stick to such materials. It is one of the attractions of PVC in that it is easy to get a solvent ink or a UV ink to stick to it.

With the Sepiax technology, it will stick to most flexible polymers, and much else besides.

WFOL: How do Sepiax inks compare with outdoor life and scratch resistance.

SP: First of all Sepiax inks are not necessarily targeting the outdoor market. However the printed product will be durable in the outdoor market in a very similar way that the eco solvents inks are at present.

WFOL: So you are not comparing Sepiax with solvent inks, only eco solvents?

SP: Yes. An eco solvent print would be typically guaranteed for about 2 years, Sepiax inks can offer a similar outdoor life.

WFOL: And scratch resistance?

SP: Scratch resistance is good, probably slightly better than eco-solvent. However, let me put a qualifier on that. If you produce a vehicle wrap today using eco solvents inks, you would probably laminate that print to protect the eco-solvent ink. You would do the same with Sepiax inks.

WFOL: Is there anything else you would like to add.

SP: Not really. Only perhaps that the market needs to understand that this is an early generation of an ink that has many existing applications today with an expanded range of media for a huge variety of new applications at different price points. But it is not yet a high productivity system for heavy media, it is not a 10-20 metre per hour production process yet for SAV or any other thick vinyl.

I wouldn’t say that you are forced to run the machines at a very slow speed either, it all depends on the thickness of the media and the heater’s ability to get the heat through to the ink receptive layer.   As the heater technology develops, we will be able to increase print speeds step-by-step.

Sepiax Inks